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Finland’s Secret to Safer Streets

How Finns learned to slow down and share the road

Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

To paraphrase Dostoevsky, one can measure the degree of civilization in a country by traveling its roads.

I learned this the hard way on a recent reporting trip to Finland. To catch my departing flight, first I had to rent a car to drive from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Newark airport. Then, en route, not only did I have to deal with the usual stress of having to balance the risk of getting a speeding ticket against the risk of getting into an accident by driving too slowly, I also got to meet some deranged hooligans straight out of “Mad Max.” Perhaps 15 or 20 souped-up cars and trucks, with deafening glass packs and side-dump exhausts, appeared suddenly around Stroudsburg, driving perhaps 100 miles per hour, weaving between lanes and onto the shoulder. One of them abruptly cut me off, nearly causing me to crash into another car.

It’s a familiar experience for anyone who drives, bikes, or walks on an American street. Hyper-vigilance is the natural response to roads filled with big, heavy, powerful cars and trucks driven at high speed, and often by people with a contemptuous disregard for anything but their own convenience and kicks.

So when I got to Finland to pick up a rental car, I was still amped. It’s a foreign country, and getting to my hotel meant I had to drive through the middle of the capital city. Surely this would be difficult.

It was not. I was surprised to learn that driving in downtown Helsinki is actually quite easy and safe — and later as I walked around the city, so is walking, cycling, or riding an electric scooter. What’s more, most of the road design policies that have made it so easy and safe to move around, drastically reducing carbon emissions in the process, are relatively simple. Even a sprawling American suburb could adopt most of them, with great effect.

The first and most important policy is to slow down traffic in towns and cities. Finland does have high-speed highways, but the speed limit only hits 120 kilometers per hour (about 75 miles per hour) far outside any settlement and only during the summer. Elsewhere, limits have been progressively reduced over the years. In the Helsinki suburbs, a limit of 80 kph, or 50 mph, is enforced with speed cameras. Further into the city, as the roads pick up more traffic and become more complex, the highway speed drops to 60 kph (37 mph), or even 50 kph (31 mph). On local city streets, the limit drops to 30 kph (18 mph), and most streets are narrow and paved with rough stone that, together with raised crosswalks, effectively force people to drive even slower.

A Finnish speeding ticket, which is levied as a percentage of one’s income, is no joke. Back in June, a wealthy businessman named Anders Wiklöf was fined121,000 euros for doing 82 kph in a 50 kph zone. “I really regret the matter,” he told a local newspaper.

Thanks to those stiff and all-but-guaranteed fines, people hardly ever speed, and as a result, driving is much easier and safer. You’ve got plenty of time to change lanes, react to other cars, and figure out where you need to go. It’s actually rather pleasant. Without the white-knuckle American road culture, you can actually relax and enjoy the driving experience, even in the big city.

Low speeds are also central to pedestrian and cyclist safety on city streets. People are driving so slowly that even if someone darts right out in front of a driver, there is still usually enough time to stop. And if a collision does happen, lower speeds are exponentially safer for everyone involved. One study estimated that the risk of severe injury for a pedestrian struck by a vehicle at 26 kph (16 mph) was about 10 percent, but that increased to 90 percent at 74 kph (46 mph).

The second policy is to provide separate dedicated space for pedestrians, bikes, and public transit. Larger Helsinki streets typically have a sidewalk divided between a pedestrian section and a bike section, a lane for cars, and then a separated tram lane. This means less conflict between pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, and trams — and critically, the trams don’t get stuck in traffic. That means they can bypass any traffic congestion, and so those who don’t need or want to drive will logically opt to take public transit instead, thus letting the car lanes breathe. On smaller side streets, low speeds mean the city can forgo controls of any kind. Many Helsinki intersections don’t have so much as a stop sign; people just have to watch each other and negotiate on the fly — and it works.

Taken together, all this helps create a culture of walking, cycling, and transit use that is safer, healthier, and more efficient. Thanks to these reforms, Helsinki cut its annual pedestrian fatalities from 84 in 1965 to zero in 2019 (though there have been a couple in the subsequent years). Nationally, last year saw the lowest number of traffic deaths ever recorded. Meanwhile, cutting down on automobile trips is part of how Finland slashed its carbon dioxide emissions per capita by about half, from 14 metric tons in 2003 to 7 tons in 2021, as compared to 15 tons in America.

It’s also just more wholesome. Once it sunk in that I was about as safe as it is possible to be on a street, and didn’t have to be looking over my shoulder every few seconds to watch out for a careening 4-ton pickup truck, I felt the sense of peace that comes from releasing a worry that has been there for so long you’d forgotten what it was like to exist without it. Rather than being perceived as some irritating interloper getting in the way of drivers, I felt that I belonged on the street as much as anyone else. Conversely, I started viewing drivers, who invariably stop when anyone approaches a crosswalk, as fellow human beings rather than probable speed-crazed maniacs bent on running me down.

This safety no doubt helps explain why compared to an American city, one sees children on the street far more frequently in Helsinki; either big packs of young schoolchildren wearing high-visibility vests, shepherded by a couple adults, or kids from about seven and up out by themselves or in groups. And that’s despite the fact that the American birthrate is substantially higher than Finland’s. No doubt part of the reason for children being absent from the street is America’s hyper-neurotic parenting culture, but that culture is also fueled by the quite rational worry that unsupervised kids will be obliterated by a speeding lunatic.

It all sounds pretty fancy. But I want to emphasize that Helsinki is not really on the urbanist cutting edge. It still has some wide “stroads” here and there, and compared to, say, Amsterdam it is still relatively car-centric. But that also means that it isn’t too far off from the American city average.

Now, of course America couldn’t simply copy-paste every one of Finland road policies. We have neither the political will nor the administrative capacity to impose six-digit fines on rich jerks speeding through school zones in their Porsche Cayennes. It’s also hard to imagine the kind of stiff taxes on vehicle ownership and gasoline (about three dollars a gallon) that also makes driving much more expensive.

But we could have automatically enforced speed limits. New York City, for example, recently turned its (very limited) collection of speed cameras on continuously, after long delays from car-brained officials. Sure enough, speeding fell sharply along with traffic injuries and deaths of all kinds. We could also reclaim some road space for bike lanes and trams — or even just buses. The average suburban arterial has more than enough space, and e-bikes make many bike trips possible even in low-density sprawl.

Studies demonstrate that a substantial and growing fraction of Americans want to be able to live car-free. Another larger fraction would simply like the option to avoid driving if they don’t want to. The reason so many don’t is the risk. Make walking and cycling safe, and millions more will do it. We wouldn’t make it all the way to Finland’s level without the rest of its policies, but we’d get fairly far.

When reformers propose Finland-style changes to American cities, drivers commonly complain that it would cut into their freedom. But you can still drive just about anywhere in Finland, if you want to. Indeed, it’s much easier and safer to do so than it is in American cities. We have about the worst of all possible worlds, where we’re so dedicated to car supremacy that we’ve made our cities a dangerous, stressful, polluted hellscape even for drivers. There’s a better way.

Ryan Cooper profile image

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is the managing editor at The American Prospect, and author of the book "How Are You Going to Pay for That?: Smart Answers to the Dumbest Question in Politics."


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